If you had told me a year ago that I would become a follower of Sanatana Dharma, I would not have even known what you were talking about. Of course, once you had explained the concepts of Dharma to me (of which the website www.dharmacentral.com does an amazing job), I would have probably said, 'You know, I think I'm already a Dharmi!'. The beliefs of Dharma just make sense to me, so there was nothing to convert to, I already believed it all.
I was raised in a Christian home. Around fourteen I started to question my belief in the Christian faith. It seemed like a large part of the Christians I knew didn't really live the message of love and forgiveness that Christ teaches, it was more like going to church and believing in Christ was just a way to stay out of hell and feel like a 'good person'. I also had problems with the concept of eternal damnation based on one short lifetime of choices, as well as the question of what happens to all the good people that don't accept Christ or worse never have the chance to? Do they really all go to hell? How can a God of love be so cruel? But the main problem was that I never really felt God, I understood the concepts presented to me at Church and in the Bible, but it wasn't a real personal relationship for me, there was no daily communion, it just wasn't tangible enough for me.
So then I went to massage school, which introduced me to yoga, which introduced me to the Bhagavad Gita, which led me to Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharyaji, who introduced me to Dharma.
Dharma is so natural and logical that it really is hard to argue with it. The idea that there is a Natural Law in the universe that guides and explains all of materiality and beyond. What a great concept, and one that has been expressed in one form or another since the beginning of man through many different cultures, not just India (they were just the first ones who wrote it down). There were a couple of concepts that were new to me, but after reviewing them and weighing them in my heart, I found that in the end they sense. The main differences I could find between Dharma and my previous Christian teachings were reincarnation, karma, and vegetarianism.
The idea of reincarnation became very appealing to me. A second chance. It took a weight off my shoulders that I didn't even know was there, that weight being the idea that you have one chance, one life, and if you mess it up then you are done, too bad, now you go to hell forever. With reincarnation there are infinite chances, eternal forgiveness. A God who understands, and is eternally patient. Now that sounds like a God of love to me! No eternal damnation, what a beautiful concept. While there are lower realms of existence that are a sort of nightmare for those souls that truly deserve it, it is a fate that has an ending with a fresh start at the end, a chance to make things right and to continue their search for God. Doesn't that seem better? Doesn't that fit the qualities of a God of love?
Karma just makes sense, whether you are a Dharmi or not. I don't know how you can see the result of negative thoughts and actions to be good or vice versa. Of course things do happen which we cannot explain or control, but I have found that in the end things always seem to work out the way they should. I find Karma a great guide to living, and a wonderful explanation why things happen, cosmic justice. And always remember we are not meant to know everything. Cultivating the ability to let go of the fruits of your actions, and to just do your duty for the sake of devotion to God is a wonderful practice, and one that will set you free from both the Wheel of Karma (the cycle of rebirth) and the result of unfulfilled desires and expectations which is the root of our suffering (all based in ego).
I don't get too much into the Devas and Devis, these are the hundreds of 'gods' that most people are thinking of when they say that Dharma is a polytheistic religion. When I began to get involved in Dharma, I didn't know quite what to make of all those figures with eight arms and elephant heads dancing around with swords and spears. But what I have learned is that they all represent different aspects of the Divine, not just mythological figures that someone made up. It makes a lot more sense when you look at them as beautiful and imaginative ways to express the myriad of different manifestations of God, and also you have to remember that these figures and stories are from a very different culture that existed thousands of years ago on the other side of the planet. You will find that all of the stories that exist in Dharma mean much more than they do on the surface. The Gita is a perfect example, the story of the battle between the armies of good and evil really represents the battle inside each of us between our worldly sense inclinations and our divine powers of discrimination. All in all, the Avatar and Rishis that I feel closest to are Krishna, Jesus, and Buddha, but now at least I understand why the rest of Devas and Devis exist. And to be honest, are angels and demons any less crazy? I'd say their exactly the same thing, just from a different culture.
So the funny thing was, I felt like I had always been a Dharmi except for one small problem, vegetarianism. Not only have I pretty much been a carnivore for most of my life, but up until a couple years ago I hated vegetables! I mean I literally would not eat any vegetable but lettuce and pickles on my burger. Then I started getting into natural health and began eating more vegetables, but I would never have thought I would be able to make the switch, I just loved my meat!
In the end it was a combination of several things. One, I got tired of telling people, 'Oh I'm a Dharmi except I'm not vegetarian.' Two, through my meditation practice I was able to naturally increase my willpower and determination, along with just about everything else (you will see what I mean when you start seriously meditating). Three, I wanted to become a student of Acharyaji's, and to do this you must be a strict vegetarian. But mostly I was just ready. You can't force it, you just have to progress along the path until the time is ripe, and then it naturally happens.
And you know the most amazing part? I have never been happier! I never realized how heavy meat feels in your gut! You know that stuffed, bloated feeling you get after eating? How many times have you said, 'Oh man I shouldn't have eaten that!' Well although it is still possible to stuff yourself as a vegetarian (trust me!), I don't find myself having that heavy, rock in the gut feeling anymore, and I love that. There's also this kind of rich fatty texture to meat that just makes me want to eat more and more, I think that is another reason I don't overeat like I used to with meat. And I now get tons of fiber! Before I had to struggle to eat enough fiber and take fiber supplements etc. Now I scoff at fiber supplements! I'm sure all the vitamins and everything else is good too. There is also a feeling of accomplishment doing something that I never thought I could do, and it has given me the strength to do other beneficial things that I didn't think was possible.
But the most important thing is my spiritual path. Now every time I eat I feel like I'm praying, I also get to call myself a Dharmi (with no 'buts' involved!), and I can take initiation as one of Acharyaji's students. So for all those people that say there is no way they could ever be vegetarian, I would urge patience. Don't try to force it, and don't let it scare you away from the eternal truth present in Dharma. Just be patient with yourself and continue to learn and grow with your mediation practice. When it is time, it will just happen.
So in the end Dharma was a natural evolution for me. If you are a spiritual seeker, and your goal is to find a personal and tangible relationship with the creater of all existence, then Dharma is for you. It's my relationship with God that has changed the most, and the key to that is meditation. Until I started meditating I rarely felt the presence of God in my heart. Now I can feel Him all the time, and when I start to lose that feeling I simply have to take a few moments, let the overwhelming clamor of my senses fade, let go of all the neverending thought processes my ego loves to string together, and bring my awareness back to my center in meditation. He is always there waiting for me. I feel His love guiding me and protecting me at all times, and for that I would do anything.
'The wise is one who searches for God,
the successful is one who finds Him.'
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharyaji